A Badly Altered State

A judge may force Colorado to take care of its homeless mentally ill population.

"It is puzzling to me that the State and MHCD seem to persist in the view that they are free to alter the terms of the settlement agreement unilaterally, as their own political and professional judgements dictate," the judge wrote in October 1999. "That is not how settlement agreements work, and that is not how this settlement agreement works. The parties to this litigation made their beds in the settlement agreement, and they are going to sleep there."

Hoffman scoffed at the state's skeletal staffing proposal for the group homes, calling it "woefully inadequate" and impractical. "The state asks me to require only three and one-half full-time employees per week," he wrote. "As I understand their proposal, one staff member is to be awake at all times. I have no idea how they propose to accomplish this with just three and one-half employees per week, unless they have people working double and triple shifts."

He also said the state had failed to give priority to the homeless in assigning people to the new housing, saying, "A big part of the problem is that MHCD has failed to develop any effective procedures to identify homeless class members."

Wade Livingston represents the state in court.
Brett Amole
Wade Livingston represents the state in court.

The state's cavalier attitude toward filling the City of Denver's Section 8 subsidized apartments especially angered Hoffman, who noted that MHCD and the state had turned down the city's offer to put on special Section 8 orientations for the mentally ill and had failed to call the city to request more vouchers when they ran out.

"A Section 8 program like this one, if competently run, should have at least 90 percent of its certificates being used at any one time, the other 10 percent becoming unused as a result of ordinary renter turnover," wrote the judge. "Here, by contrast, eighteen months after Denver made these Section 8 certificates available, 25 percent of them have never been used. This is a scandalous and unacceptable situation."

Providing humane care for the mentally ill isn't impossible. Sheryl Silver does it every day.

Silver runs the Ruben L. Valdez Personal Care Center on 3636 W. Colfax Ave., a boardinghouse that was recently purchased by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. Since last summer, she and her staff have been caring for 85 people in the red-brick building, a former synagogue.

For years before the coalition took over, the building was used as a boardinghouse. But while the residents had a roof over their heads, virtually no services were provided, and Silver remembers being appalled by what she saw. "I brought someone here seven years ago and left crying," she says. "It was dark and depressing."

Today the Valdez center is known for the care it offers its residents, many of whom once lived on the streets. Every resident is assigned a case manager who comes up with an individualized plan that covers everything from medical care to vocational training. The case manager can also help residents apply for Social Security or Veterans Administration benefits and arrange psychiatric treatment or vocational training. Many of the residents have made enough progress that they're able to hold down jobs, including several who work at the 7-Eleven down the street.

"We're taking people right out of the streets or from shelters or prison," Silver says. "We try to make it as comfortable as possible for folks. We have people say, 'This is my family.'"

Most of the people living at Valdez have been abandoned by their real families, and their maladies range from schizophrenia to bipolar disorder to brain damage. After living on the street, they often arrive at the center with major medical problems and terrible self-esteem. "They have no feeling of self-worth when they come here," Silver says. "We try to overwhelm them with feelings of self-worth."

"When folks come here, their lives are in complete chaos," she adds. "We're helping them to organize their lives. We do a lot of crisis intervention."

Silver remembers one man who showed up in a taxicab wearing a hospital gown and with three toes recently amputated. Many have abused drugs and alcohol -- schizophrenics who are off their medication often turn to liquor when they start hearing voices -- and the staff has a program for substance abuse. "They say, 'I've never had anyone so involved with my business,' but they say it with a smile. A lot of them have never had anyone ask if they've had dinner."

A 75-year-old resident named Bobby comes up to greet Silver. She asks about the cowboy boots he's wearing. He just bought them at a thrift store, and she wants to make sure he can move his toes in them.

"You're looking quite dapper today," Silver tells him.

"I felt good all weekend," says Bobby, obviously flattered.

Their conversation is interrupted by the appearance of Stella, a mutt who spends her days at the home.

"Some of the folks who wouldn't talk will lay down on the floor and talk to her," says Silver. "Everybody loves Stella."

Residents are housed three to a room at the Valdez home. Meals are provided in a kitchen and dining room, and several residents help out with food preparation. Silver says that when the coalition took over the building, several residents hadn't been outside in years. An Eagle Scout troop built a garden in the center's backyard that's popular with the residents, and the staff now arranges field trips to Colorado Rockies games, concerts, even forays into the mountains. "The majority of people here don't have anyone except us," she says.

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